JBL is a big name in the whole audio field. It’s reach extends from PA systems and studio suites to home systems big and small and automotive. So big in fact, you could easily miss its importance thanks to its ubiquity; the brand is featured in Toyota premium in car systems (other names in the Harman stable, such as Infinity and Mark Levinson are used as premium line-fit systems in a range of cars including Kia and Lexus), but more recently JBL has begun to appear in Ferraris!
The company isn’t perhaps the go-to name for headphones – the JBL brand has been closer associated with docks and iThing speaker systems since the iPod and iPhone became synonymous with audio on the move – with sister Harman brand AKG taking most of the credit for high-end headphone audio. With its new five-strong Synchros line, however, JBL is trying to bring its reputation for scientific research to the in-head world.
During the company’s combined Synchros launch and start of the brand’s Journey of Sound, Harman’s Director of Acoustic Research – Dr Sean Olive – gave a fascinating presentation about just how little research has gone into headphone sound, how we listen through headphones, how much of the whole headphone experience is driven by marketing today (like we didn’t know, but it’s good to put some stats behind the hype-breaking) and how JBL is attempting to create a target response of a headphone to approximate that of an accurate loudspeaker in a well-designed listening room.
This last is interesting; it’s not an attempt at making headphones sound like loudspeakers, but tries to make headphones create the sound outside the head of the listener (in audiophile terms ‘soundstage’). This – called LiveStage in JBL-speak – is a signal processing system, that in use is not too dissimilar to that used by Meridian in its Prime headphone amplifier, except this is an active system in the headphone itself. To demonstrate the effectiveness of this, JBL conducted a ‘silent’ concert in the famous Cavern Club in the heart of Liverpool. Sadly John, Paul, George and Ringo aren’t available for gigs any more, but Canadian duo Jonas and the Massive ably stood in with both their own works and a few Fab Four covers in an acoustic set.
This ‘silent gig’ concept has been tried before by JBL to launch the Synchros range in the US, but the first outing was less than ideal. The individual listeners had no control over the headphone output and many complained about the ultimate volume. Here, the output was fed to dozens of Pro-Ject headphone amps, and the assembled European car and audio journalist ‘pack’ could select their own personal volume level and compare the sound of the Synchros S700 range topper headphone with and without LiveStage processing to the real deal. Of course, the real deal was played through a small PA system made up of Harman products, but the Cavern club’s room is small enough for the PA to be as much sound reinforcement as sound delivery, and comparisons were possible.
There was good news and bad for JBL here. First the good news; the sound of the Synchros S700 was very, very close to the real thing. They are closed back headphones that make a very tight seal and attenuate a lot of extraneous noise, and the tonal balance, range and articulation of the headphones was close enough to the live singer and guitar sound to make almost no odds. No bass boosts, no veiled midranges, no too soft or too sharp treble. An excellent performance.
The bad news was that engaging LiveStage wasn’t quite as successful. While it did make it seem more like the musicians were out in the open (instead of somewhere inside your skull), there was a lightening and brightening of the upper midrange and treble that deviated from the otherwise extremely neutral tonal balance. This wasn’t aggressive or hard sounding, but in looking around, there were many listeners who spent much of the later parts of the silent gig with the little white LED denoting LiveStage turned ‘off’. In fairness, the LiveStage system works better on recordings where there is a distinct sense of ‘soundstage’ and a live, amplified event might not be the best place to demonstrate that.
The JBL/Ferrari link is an interesting one too. Unfortunately, ‘time pressures’ (as in ‘you aren’t an automotive journalist’) did not permit taking a whole week out of the schedule to experience the joys of the new Ferrari FF and its in-car system, with hot laps around the track with Nick Mason of Pink Floyd and culminating in the second stage of the whole Beatles experience in Hamburg, where they honed their skills. However, I did manage to score a pair of Synchros S700 headphones for review. First impressions are extremely favourable… and as everyone knows, first impressions count!
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